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    International Translation Day: Faithfulness, Spirit and Truth

    September 30, 2019

    International Translation Day has been celebrated since 1953, on September 30, on the feast of St. Jerome, the Patron Saint of Translators. St. Jerome, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, is remembered and honoured for translating the Bible from Hebrew to Latin, (completed in 405 CE) which is accepted as the Vulgate translations. The Bible was first translated into Sinhala in 1823. Today as the most translated book, the New Testament is available in about 1,500 languages, out of 6,500 languages spoken around the world. This is an indication of the use, the power and the necessity of translations. Continuing further with the translations of the Bible, there are about 450 different translations in English.
    The first translation from one human language to another is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets in Sumerian around 2000 BCE. The earliest surviving translation of the Epic in the Akkadian language is from the 7th century BCE. The earliest reference to translation in South Asia could be the Ashoka inscriptions. The language used was Prakrit, written in Brahmi and Kharoshti, some of which had been translated into Aramaic and Greek languages, by Ashoka’s scribes.
    Buddhist literature
    In Sri Lanka, the earliest known translations were probably from Sinhala to Pali by Ven. Buddhagosha Maha Thera, in the 5th century. It remains a mystery about how and why all the Buddhist literature written up to the arrival of Buddhagosha disappeared. Since then all Theravada literature, and all our chronicles had been written in Pali. If not for this unfortunate development, Sinhala would have become the international language of Theravada Buddhism.
    It was George Turnour in 1826 who first attempted to translate the Mahavamsa into English. His English translation was published in 1837. Wilhelm Geiger translated it into German in 1912. The first Sinhala translation of the Mahavamsa was in 1883 by Hikkaduwe Sumangala Himi and Don Andiris Silva Batuwantudawe, directly from Pali, and not from the English translation, perhaps realizing the need for the translation in the mother tongue. Till then it was only the Pali educated elite who could read our own chronicles.
    Translation became essential for communication and expression of ideas and records, when human beings began using different languages. The translations helped mankind to share their knowledge, experience and creativity. Sometimes translation into another language was detrimental to the original language. The fate of the Sinhala language is one example.
    Translation is a creative art and a science. A translator needs to have a thorough knowledge of both languages, including its idioms and also the socio-cultural background of the original work. He needs to know the exact meaning of a word, in the exact context in which it had been used. He also needs to be creative to put across the original ideas, the nuances and idioms. When a translation is done of a work written thousands of years ago, in a language that has not been in use for a very long time, certain words or phrases could never be translated accurately. In the Ashoka inscriptions there is a Prakrit word, vachamhi, which has been variously translated as ‘cowpen’, ‘mews’, ‘stables’ or a ‘bath’, while some translators conveniently ignored it, as we find with many translations. This is just one mistranslation out of very many in Ashokan inscriptions.
    When a translation is done from another translation, often the outcome is humorous or even tragic. Yet most of the translations into Sinhala from other languages are from their English translations. We have nine Sinhala translations of Gitanjali, but they are all from Rabindranath’s English translations. Thus we have never been able to really enjoy the Gitanjali. But if the Gurudev had not translated Gitanjali into English, he would not have received the Nobel.
    “If there was of races, you him find rich or ruined at the end; if it, here is a combat of dogs, he bring his bet; he himself laid always for a combat of cats…” that is how Mark Twain back translated his story the ‘Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’, which he had translated into French, while admitting, “I cannot speak the French Language, but I can translate very well, though not fast, I being self-educated.” We could try this on some of our modern translations that flood our bookshops today. Most of them are translations of translations, and if we try to back-translate them into the original language it would be very difficult to predict what comes out. In reality some of the Sinhala translations have to be back-translated by the reader in his mind, to really understand a phrase or even a sentence.
    Translations are necessary, specially today, when the world is becoming smaller, when we are getting closer to all the people around the globe, and that includes the writers. When we get to know the writers, and their works, when we have some idea of what they write about and their society and culture, we like to read their work. But our language ability is limited. It limits our reading to books written in the languages we know. The books written in other languages could be read only in translation.
    Tamil writings
    In our country, the urgency is to share all creative writing within our nation. There is vast progress in Tamil writing in Sri Lanka, which the Sinhala readers never get to read. Sinhala literature has risen to great heights. All good Tamil writings have to be translated into Sinhala, and the best works coming out in Sinhala should also be translated into Tamil. It opens the door to reach 77 million Tamil language users around the world. It would not be difficult. There are many Sri Lankans who are fluent in both languages.
    Then we should also translate the Sinhala and Tamil writings into English, to introduce them to the rest of the world, to enable the 500 million English speaking people on earth to read them.However when we translate all the children’s books into Sinhala we discourage the children from reading the original English books, which would have improved their language ability. But when we translate Tamil into Sinhala we can expect more children to learn to be familiar with and understand their friends and neighburs.The future of translations would belong to intelligent machines. Already we have instant translations of web pages by Google and Yahoo and other search engines, but here too sometimes the translations are hilarious or tragic.
    Whatever we do in the name of Arts and Culture should be for the benefit of all mankind, and all our future generations. We have a civic and a moral duty, even when we do a translation. We should be loyal to the original work. We should be honest and seek permission of the author or publisher before we publish a translation. Our pen, our paint brush, our violin should only create something useful, to bring about peace and harmony, while providing entertainment.

    Last modified on Monday, 30 September 2019 15:53

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